I was fifteen years old when I saw my first dead human being… outside of the sterile environment of a funeral home casket, that is. Just like the slightly younger main character of the movie Stand By Me, which was based on a story by Stephen King.
Due to my profession, I have not only seen but handled hundreds of dead bodies. Young and old. Male and female. Rich and dirt poor. Clean, warm deaths in beds at home with family close and medicated comfort. Cold, nasty deaths with no warning on dirty pavement and fluttering yellow police tape.
In short, I’ve seen a lot.
But you never forget the first. I remember the sights, the smells, the temperature. Everything.
A bit of backstory: As a teen, I was a cadet in the Civil Air Patrol, which is the civilian branch of the Air Force. One of CAP’s main missions is search and rescue. In fact, they run about 90% of domestic aircraft search and rescue operations in the country.
Several times during my time in, I was called away from home in the middle of the night to go find an aircraft that went missing, or chase the ghost of a distress signal from an aircraft’s ELT (emergency locator transmitter).
On my first time out, we found a plane. And a body.
I got the call around 8pm. Our team picked me up and off we went into the hills of Southern Missouri.
We drove up and down backcountry washboard roads chasing the ELT signal with our equipment.
But the damn signals bounce off the hills, diverting us off on several wild ghost hunts.
We drove and searched for about 10 hours, listening carefully for the signal to get stronger or weaker. I had the harsh smell of our search vehicle’s burning clutch stuck in my nose all night.
Just as we thought we might have triangulated the location, the signal would get weak or disappear completely.
You always have the hope that the planes occupants might just be sitting on the ground waiting for you to show up, maybe a little beat up or hurt. I could almost see the relieved look on their faces when they see us walking up.
As we bounced through the dark backroads and one hour vanished into the next, my hope faded.
Just after sunrise, the State Highway Patrol sent up a helicopter to the area that our signals were the strongest. Within an hour, they had located possible debris on a hillside a short distance from where we were searching. The chopper pilot had radioed in the location of a dirt road that would get us to within 100 yards of the site.
We flew down the highway until we found the road. A battered metal trash can lay discarded along the highway. We stopped so we could mark the road for the other teams and rescue personnel. I righted the can and tied my orange safety vest to it. I wasn’t moving as fast as I should have, dreading what was waiting for us down the road. A fellow team member hollered from the vehicle for me to hurry up, that people could be dying.
But I knew, somehow, that there was no grateful pilot waiting for us. I just knew it, but I can’t explain how.
We pulled down as far as we could. We humped our packs down to a clearing and started seeing pieces of metal. Not big pieces, but suitcase-sized.
And then I saw the fuselage with the full accordion treatment. I glanced up at the trees. There was no swath of broken branches or decapitated trees in any direction. So the plane didn’t glide into the trees, it nosedived right into the hillside.
My eyes scoured the terrain, looking for a victim. But I noticed that no one else was looking.
“Does anyone have eyes on the pilot?” I asked.
He’s about three feet to your left, under the fuselage, came the reply.
I had almost kicked him while I was walking past the wreckage. I knelt down in the dirt to look closer.
The impact had folded him up and driven him into the dirt. Only the back of his light blue nylon warmup jacket was visible. And the back of his head and neck. A single dried rivulet of blood had made its way from his hairline down to the jacket.
An instant death for a young pilot, 18 years old, with a freshly-minted pilot’s license that was doubtless somewhere in the mangled mess.
No matter how quickly we would have found him, the end result would have been the same.
And just like that, a life snuffed out like a candle. No more Christmas. No more birthdays. No more dreaming of the love of his life. No more hope for the future.
I was thankful that I didn’t have to see his face.
The next day, I was sitting at the dinner table with my parents, eating and watching the local evening news.
The pilot’s parents were being interviewed. They expressed their disgust at the length of time that it took to find their son’s body. Why wasn’t he found sooner, the mother asked.
I felt both of my parents looking at me, wide-eyed and silent.
I snapped the television knob to off and growled something about them not knowing what the hell they were talking about and how it wouldn’t have made a goddam bit of difference when he was found.
Strong language that I rarely if ever would have used in the presence of my folks.
They said nothing.
I stewed on it for a couple of days and then thankfully, my mind let the anger go.
But the memory remains.
And I am still thankful that I didn’t have to see his face.